NZ Provincial Barbarians 7
Murray Kinsella reports from Toll Stadium, Whangarei
“IS THIS THE worst Lions team ever?” came the cry from one particularly vocal Kiwi fan as half time approached in Whangarei.
That question remains to be answered in the coming weeks and these are early days in the 2017 tour but as starts go, this was very, very poor.
The Blues, the Crusaders, the Māori and most of all the All Blacks will be licking their lips at the prospect of getting a shot at Warren Gatland’s side based on this showing.
A large number of the Lions’ highest-profile players were extremely off colour as they played three days after arriving in New Zealand, but even with that short turnaround they should have had far, far less trouble putting this Provincial Barbarians team away.
Though many of these Kiwi players had come straight into this meeting from amateur club rugby, they looked better than the Lions’ array of Test stars.
There were positive performances from the likes of the outstanding Taulupe Faletau, Ross Moriarty, Kyle Sinckler and Ben Te’o but too many of the Lions were poor.
Out-half Johnny Sexton endured a nightmare evening that puts his Test credentials in major doubt, while Greig Laidlaw was ponderous at scrum-half and Stuart Hogg made several errors at fullback.
Iain Henderson also had some weak moments in defence on a disappointing outing, but it was the collective underperformance that causes most concern.
The Lions will likely point to a lack of preparation time, but the Barbarians have had relatively little time together too. Yet it was Clayton McMillan’s team who looked better coached, with stronger skills and a more positive mindset.
Anthony Watson’s second-half try, as well as a conversion from Owen Farrell and a penalty apiece from Laidlaw and Sexton meant the Lions opened their tour with a victory but they have a huge amount of work to do in the coming weeks if they are to challenge the All Blacks.
Warren Gatland won’t be panicking just yet, but the fact that his son, Bryn, was the most intelligent and composed player on the pitch is a real worry.
There were many heart-in-the-mouth moments for the Lions as the Barbarians attacked with the kind of freedom Gatland had promised his side would be operating with and, though they scraped through with a victory, alarm bells went off.
The Blues await at Eden Park on Wednesday and Tana Umaga’s team will be enthusiastic about their chances of knocking off what will be a completely-changed Lions team. Gatland must hope that his next side are in far better form.
It was always likely the Lions would be rusty so soon after arriving in New Zealand but their malaise extended all the way to the half-time break, when they trailed 7-3 after turning down shots at goal in favour of going after tries.
The Barbarians threatened as early as the fifth minute after a break up the right by thrilling wing Sam Vaka, although the Lions managed to weather the early storm and eventually go downfield for Sexton to kick them 3-0 up off the tee nearing the quarter mark.
The Irish out-half had earlier missed his opening shot at goal, wide to the right of the posts in what was a tough first half for him, with errors in his passing and kicking from hand too.
The Barbarians were the better team and they almost scored directly after Sexton’s successful penalty, fullback Luteru Laulala gathering in a loose ball and breaking 40 metres upfield.
He had support on either side but opted to attempt to beat last man Stuart Hogg. The Lions’ fullback tackled him and Laulala offloaded, but BaaBaas centre Inga Finau was hauled down and then held up brilliantly by a Taulupe Faletau tackle.
Despite that let-off, the Lions continued to make errors and were targeted under the high ball by the superb Gatland, before the Kiwis hammered into a series of narrow phases for captain Sam Anderson-Heather to blast through the tackle of Henderson and Laidlaw to score, Gatland converting.
The Lions continued to stutter, with the struggling Hogg firing off a poor pass to Watson in the right corner as the tryline beckoned.
Hogg was then held up over the tryline after fine passing from the impressive Sinckler and Te’o, before the Lions’ inside centre was pinged underneath the posts as he picked and carried into a team-mate to release the pressure on the Barbarians.
Sexton cross-kicked out on the full and then put a pass onto the deck soon after with the Lions numbers-up, while outside centre Jonathan Joseph was held up over the tryline on the stroke of half time.
With Greig Laidlaw taking over the kicking duties from Sexton, the Lions did close the scoreline to 7-6 early in the first half as the BaaBaas went off their feet at the breakdown.
The Lions out-half didn’t last too long thereafter, being replaced by Farrell with less than 50 minutes gone.
The Englishman had an immediate impact as the Lions finally pushed into the lead, as he prompted them into a more cohesive attacking effort. The excellent Moriarty broke through initially in the 53rd minute, allowing Farrell to feed Anthony Watson for a sharp finish through two players in the right corner.
Farrell slotted to conversion from wide on the right and it appeared that the Lions would shift up a gear, but instead they needed a try-saving tackle from Tommy Seymour out on left as the game entered the final quarter.
Having turned down those shots at goal in the first half, they went for the posts in the 65th minute to a chorus of boos in Toll Stadium but Farrell somehow slammed the entirely kickable opportunity against the post, with Te’o knocking on as he followed up.
Some enterprising work from replacement back row Justin Tipuric sent sub scrum-half Rhys Webb hurtling for the tryline with just over 10 minutes left, but the Welshman spilled the ball forward as he was tackled from behind, another chance gone.
And it was the Barbarians who finished the game on top, chasing hard for a possible winning try that never came.
Tries: Sam Anderson-Heather
Conversions: Bryn Gatland [1 from 1]
Tries: Anthony Watson
Conversions: Owen Farrell [1 from 1]
Penalties: Johnny Sexton [1 from 2], Greig Laidlaw [1 from 1], Owen Farrell [0 from 1]
NZ BARBARIANS: Luteru Laulala; Sam Vaka, Inga Finau (Jonah Lowe ’19), Dwayne Sweeney, Sevu Reece; Bryn Gatland (Joe Webber ’58), Jack Stratton (Richard Judd ’55); Aidan Ross (Tolu Fahamokioa ’50), Sam Anderson-Heather (captain) (Andrew Makalio ‘HT), Oliver Jager (Marcel Renata ’60); Josh Goodhue, Keepa Mewett (Peter Rowe ’60); James Tucker (Keepa Mewett ’64), Lachlan Boshier (Matt Matich ’46), Mitchell Dunshea.
LIONS: Stuart Hogg; Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Ben Te’o, Tommy Seymour; Johnny Sexton (Owen Farrell ’49), Greig Laidlaw (Rhys Webb ’58); Joe Marler (Mako Vunipola ’50), Rory Best (Jamie George ’50), Kyle Sinckler (Tadhg Furlong ’50); Alun Wyn Jones, Iain Henderson (George Kruis ’50); Ross Moriarty, Sam Warburton (Justin Tipuric ’68), Taulupe Faletau.
Replacement not used: Elliot Daly.
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